Impact Vs Oscillating Sprinklers: Which is Best?

Impact Sprinkler VS Oscillating Sprinkler

Two of the most common types of sprinklers in use today are the impact sprinkler and the oscillating sprinkler. This will provide some useful information on the differences between these two types.

Both types of sprinklers are often found in very nearly any retailer you find yourself shopping at during the spring season. These two varieties of yard sprinklers have vastly differing inner workings, and each has unique advantages and disadvantages.

On the one hand, you will have a fan-like pattern with the oscillating sprinklers; on the other, you will get a circular area of coverage. Water conservation is very important. So, a timer is usually preferred.

The Primary Differences in Oscillating & Impact Sprinklers

Sprinklers in General

The sprinkler, or more specifically, the irrigation sprinkler is a ubiquitous ornament of golf courses and suburban lawns.

The very first of its kind was invented in Buffalo, NY in 1871. The first design was powered by a water hose.

The water hose, incidentally, was invented far earlier than I would have guessed – way back in 1673! Anyway, this was only a baby step above some guy standing on the grass and holding a water hose.

But the technology involved in yard watering systems today has advanced by leaps and bounds from its simple roots.

Impact Sprinkler: The Main Features

impact sprinkler brass with wheelsThe impact sprinkler is iconic. Everything from its design to its visual appeal is unique to this particular type of sprinkler head. The very inner workings of its mechanisms are different from other models of sprinkler.

Pictured is the Orbit brass wheeled impact sprinkler. It’s very affordable and extremely durable. Customer reviews for it are as good as it gets too.

Around here we are big fans of this model although there are some good options that are even cheaper if you are ok with having a little plastic involved. 🙂

The impact sprinkler was one of the bestselling models of sprinkler because of its durability and simplicity. Although it has been surpassed in the last few decades by the gear driven sprinkler design, the impact sprinkler model was widely praised for its economical design.

For a visual on an impact sprinkler, you should simply reference the Kenny Loggins song in the opening of the movie Caddy Shack. They’re playing the backup percussions.

The simple principals that the impact sprinkler uses to operate make it extremely user-friendly.

An impact sprinkler is a subset of Rotary Sprinklers. This is pretty self-explanatory, I think…the water goes around in a circle, instead of a rectangle or whatever. Let’s say you want to water a piece of lawn that’s way bigger than a single ocelot sprinkler can handle. You may decide on using a few circle sprayers instead.

That iconic noise made by this model of sprinkler comes in two parts. It sounds somewhat like “tooka tooka tooka tooka, tic tic tic tic tic tic, tooka tooka tooka tooka, tic tic tic tic tic tic, etc.” The bigger “tooka” noise is the main arm – the part that impacts the water stream and rotates the sprinkler head.

Then the quicker little “tica” noise is made by a smaller arm which is meant to distribute the water nearer to the base of the sprinkler head. I imagine that the brand name of the original model, the Rain Bird, was an allusion to the chirpy kind of sound this “return cycle” arm makes.

The impacting mechanism of the system can also be a ball bearing or a cam, rather than an arm. This is one of the most durable designs on the market. If you take care of it right an impact sprinkler head will last many years.

Oscillating Sprinkler: The Main Features

heavy duty stainless steel oscillating sprinklerOscillating just means to move or swing back and forth at a regular speed.

This sprinkler lets water out in a fan-shaped pattern. Picture a slice of pizza, it throws out water like that. This enables the oscillating sprinkler to cover a surprisingly large area with every swing. You can also set most models to cover smaller areas.

Pictured above is one of the better quality models out there – the Green Thumb 4200MGT Heavy Duty Metal Oscillating Sprinkler. It’s a high quality product and priced similarly to the Orbit featured above but reviews for it (and all oscillating sprinklers) are always slightly lower than those of impact sprinklers.

One decided advantage of the oscillating system is the pattern of water fall. The way the water is pushed out in jets from the oscillating bar very closely mimics rain since it is sprayed up rather than out. Also, a lot of lawns are fairly rectangular. The sweeping arch of hydration this system spews is the fit for our little boxed-off bit of suburban grassland.

If there is any object in the path of the oscillating fan, however, this will block the water and make the oscillating sprinkler ineffective.

For example, a tree in the center of your lawn would create quite a challenge for properly watering your turf with an oscillating sprinkler system. For this reason, oscillating sprinklers are only considered a good option when the area is large and open.

It is a great sprinkler for covering an empty area. Which is fine for many people. These sprinklers are durable but might not go on for quite the same duration as the impact sprinklers.

These sprinklers are also slightly more expensive than most other kinds of sprinklers.

The List of Differences

  • The Impact Sprinkler works based on an impact mechanism while the Oscillating sprinkler just throws water from a fixed place in a particular pattern.
  • The Impact Sprinkler makes a lot of noise while the Oscillating Sprinkler is mostly silent.
  • The Oscillating Sprinkler cannot go around an obstacle, but the Impact Sprinkler can.
  • The Impact Sprinkler is more durable than the Oscillating Sprinkler.
  • The Oscillating Sprinkler is expensive compared to the Impact Sprinkler.

What does all this mean for your yard?

So, that’s a bunch of info I just threw at you. You may very well be thinking something along the lines of, “I just want to water my lawn! Just tell me which sprinkler to buy!” Well, sorry buddy, but it’s a bit more complicated than picking the best one for your precious outside carpet.

What size would you like that?

The size of the lawn in question makes a huge difference towards which system you choose. If your neighborhood looks like the ones in American Beauty or Edward Scissorhands, you would probably be best suited with an oscillating sprinkler.

On the other hand, if your yard could contain an entire aircraft carrier then maybe you should try several rotary impact sprinklers.

How new is the grass?

If we’re talking a brand-new baby yard, one which has just been sprinkled with seeds, you must be very wary about how you sprinkle it with water.

Grass seed can be expensive, so you’d hate to wash a big portion of your seeds away by carelessly throwing any old sprinkler out there. Go with the oscillating sprinklers here. The pattern of switching between getting rained on and not getting rained on helps give the soil time to soak in the water, rather than letting it pool up and carry your seeds off.

Beyond trying to water grass seeds, the most important thing for watering mature grass is to get the timing right. You want to water the lawn enough but not too much. For this, there are lots of solutions in both the oscillating and rotating varieties.

Just shop around and pay attention to the timer settings. Of course, you get what you pay for. So, the more automated you want this whole sprinkling process to be, the more you’ll make it rain at the sprinkler store.

Are you putting up the “please stay off grass” signs?

Believe it or not, sprinklers can be quite a safety hazard. Some cases of Legionnaires’ disease, otherwise known as Pontiac fever, were found to be associated with breathing in of aerosols formed from sprinklers which were attached to water hoses containing bacteria.

Also, it really hurts to trip on a sprinkler. So, if you’re going to have people in your lawn you should invest in a pop-up sprinkler rather than a shrub sprinkler (basically the shrub one doesn’t pop up).

The downside to pop-up systems is that they are not oscillating, and they are pretty fixed in place. On the other hand, that all seems like a fair trade-off when you consider the alternative of having a big metal spike sticking up out of your yard.

It must be kept in mind that these two are structurally and functionally designed to serve two entirely different purposes. No generalization can truly be made here, and we cannot simply call one of them better than the other. The best one for you would depend on the specific conditions of your lawn.

These two have been designed from entirely different starting points. Sometimes, the best answer is to use a combination of both in your yard.

Some of the best sprinklers for sale anywhere include both oscillating and impact styles.

In the case of noiselessness, if you live in a quiet place where people like the serenity, you might have a preference for the noiseless oscillating sprinkler.

If you have a lot of trees in your garden or lawn, the impact sprinkler might be the better choice.

Again, if you are looking for economic value, the impact sprinkler seems to be the better choice because it is both less expensive at first as well as far more durable than the Oscillating Sprinkler.

Water Usage and Efficiency

The key to not wasting your water on your lawn is simply caring about not wasting water on your lawn. For example, setting the timer on your sprinkler system does not need to be a one-and-done sort of thing.

You will have to change these setting periodically throughout the summer to prevent an enormous amount of water waste.

As another good example, pay attention to where you place your sprinklers. You can’t just stumble outside with coffee in one hand and a cancer stick in the other and drop your state-of-the-art oscillating sprinkler head attached to your hose without giving careful consideration to the effects of putting it in that particular spot.

To put it short – don’t water your sidewalk. Choose the placement and size of your sprinkler carefully.

Maintenance is so important. There are so many things that can go wrong with a lawn irrigation system that it boggles the mind.

The heads can be tilted, or dirty. Your water pressure might vary. The hose or piping can get damaged. The heads themselves can be damaged. Not to mention the fact that maintenance of any machine is essential for its continued efficient operation.

But there are professionals who are trained and licensed in irrigation technology who can help in keeping your whole system in tip-top shape.


The oscillating sprinkler and the impact sprinkler are two of the oldest sprinkler designs. They have stood the test of time.

They both have extremely different designs and operate in very different ways.

They each have their advantages and disadvantages. The best thing to do is to tailor your lawn irrigation system to your individual lawn by using both types of sprinklers.